Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park has admitted more than 500 COVID-19 patients since the pandemic took hold in New York last year. Hospitalizations have risen in areas of the country where vaccinations lag.
Many of our patients were otherwise healthy babies, children, and adolescents. They were sometimes athletes and more active kids, not all with underlying conditions.
That left parents dealing with true shock when their children fell ill. And, since the pandemic began in early 2020, we’ve all been feeling that general shock, struggling to absorb the idea that healthy children were suddenly at a regional children’s hospital being treated for a potentially life-threatening virus or with a post-infectious problem such as MIS-C after an asymptomatic bout of COVID.
Parents may be in for another shock, because the current overall vaccination rates will not give our children a safe environment for in-person learning this fall.
The initial images of the virus early in the pandemic left a sense that only the elderly and those with specific underlying diseases would end up hospitalized or succumbing to COVID-19.
But the truth has been more nuanced — and sometimes devastating — for parents.
About 15% of people testing positive for COVID-19 recently have been under 18, which roughly represents the percentage of the country’s population of kids. This virus has sickened children at a lower rate — only 3% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the most recent surge.
My biggest worry? That something like the highly transmissible delta variant could start attacking children far more, and that we won’t have much time to react. As of this writing, the delta variant has turned into the predominant strain, twice as contagious as previous strains. Mathematically, that means more kids may become infected, then pass on the virus to others, including high-risk family and friends.
Another concern: This virus is mutating. As vaccination levels flatline at 50% or lower in some communities, the virus continues to find hosts and mutate. And the next variant could be the one that makes our children sicker or is more resistant to the available vaccines.
In the meantime, other respiratory viruses usually prevalent during the winter months — such as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV — have led to an increase in admitted patients at children’s hospitals nationwide, including ours. This respiratory spread is occurring in the backdrop of school reopenings, with elected officials and parents rightly against remote learning and kids under 12 still ineligible for vaccination.
This has teachers, parents and, yes, children, nervous and unsure about how to keep everyone safe and healthy. It’s worthy of concern.
But there are steps we can all take to make school openings safe, if we all commit to taking them.
Let’s start with families vaccinating everyone who is eligible to get a shot in their household. This will greatly reduce the ability of the virus to spread.
While we’re aiming for a vaccination rate of at least 75%, some Long Island communities have yet to vaccinate half their eligible residents. We have more work to do. We need to raise the vaccination rates for schools to reopen safely.
We also need to follow guidelines that encourage wearing masks in school, washing our hands, and maintaining social distance. These are proven measures that slow the spread of the virus — yes, even with the delta variant’s accelerated transmission.
Everyone is dealing with a level of COVID fatigue — even me. And it’s my greatest wish to return to a world without COVID. To get there, people will need to look inside themselves to assess the greater good for society.
That’s where we will protect children, save lives and avoid the agonies of COVID.
Charles Schleien, M.D. is the chair of pediatrics at the Barbara & Donald Zucker School of Medicine of Hofstra/Northwell and senior vice president and chair of Pediatric Services at Northwell Health.